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Preserving the Cracker Barrel

Vermont takes pride in rich mercantile history in era of warehouse shopping

Name a store in your neighborhood where you can get bread, trout flies, shotgun shells, snow shovels, boots, nails of all sizes, gasoline, your dry cleaning, some stamps, directions to the Interstate, and a homemade pie.

For most Vermonters, that's a no-brainer. They instinctively head to the general store.

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America may be increasingly dotted with 7-Elevens and Wal-Marts, but in Vermont the general store represents a way of life, and Vermonters are fighting hard to protect it against the creep of megastores and strip malls.

When the arrival of Wal-Mart became inevitable, people here lobbied to have it built in downtown Bennington and not in the countryside, where it could draw customers away from the town center.

Meanwhile, two of the state's best-known institutions - the Preservation Trust and the nationally known Vermont Country Store mail-order house - are aiding general stores directly, awarding $3,500 grants to selected stores for improvement.

"We need our general stores," says Gov. Howard Dean. "They function as oral bulletin boards."

People gather at general stores to discuss the larger issues of the day, such as which roads should be plowed. Protecting the legacy of general stores also makes economic sense here where the 19th century village-scape character is one of the state's greatest economic assets.

"Big stores can add a lot of jobs, but they can get rid of a lot of jobs overnight," explains Lyman Orton, owner of the Vermont Country Store. "It's much harder for local owners to do that: They're part of the community." In Norwich, local fire chief Jack Fraser owns Dan & Whit's. "If we ain't got it, you don't need it," reads a hand-lettered sign posted near the back room. Every one of Dan & Whit's 13,000 square feet of sales space is crammed with merchandise.

"I can't do what Home Depot does: get a tractor-trailer load full of stuff," Fraser explains. So the inventory's there, just in case it's needed someday.

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Vermont's general stores come in all sizes and styles, their personalities shaped by their owners. In Barnard, Vermont, Carolyn and Ted DiCicco left accounting and teaching careers, respectively, in neighboring Massachusetts to open their store, where you can sit a spell at the old-time soda fountain, play checkers by the potbellied stove, pet the DiCicco's yellow Labrador retriever, lean back in a rocker, tell a story, or hear one.

"Here is where the sharing of life takes place," Mrs. DiCicco says, pausing by the stove. Adds customer Kim Furlong: "You don't feel like you're being watched."

Some owners, like the DiCiccos, are building new traditions. But most are continuing a family legacy - and it takes a whole family to cover all the bases in a general store that stays open from 6 o'clock in the morning to 9 at night, often seven days a week.

Jane Hastings, who acquired a working knowledge of mathematics at the candy counter of her grandfather's store in West Danville, has returned to the family business after attending Skidmore College, in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Why? Because "it's a way of life," she says.

In Greensboro, the Willey Store has been in the same family for more than 100 years. It stocks everything "except for suitcases and lumber," says Ernie Hurst, a cheerful man who's reported for work in a plaid shirt, silk bow-tie, and gray flannel pants every day since he started in his wife's family business 46 years ago. Upstairs, his wife keeps a weather eye on the footwear department. In fact, she was born next to it.

"If a little person calls you by your first name," Mr. Hurst says, "you'd better be able to call that person back by his first name."

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